Load shedding and the eevee.
TWO years ago, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies announced a whopping 35% reimbursement on production costs over three years as an incentive for local electric car manufacturers.
Thus far, only Ethiopia and South Africa have attempted to launch electric cars on the African continent which some have hailed as an environmental victory for both countries. Eskom has already taken delivery of electric cars and installed charging stations at its head office and research facility to test the infrastructure demands these cars would place upon the grid.
However, against the backdrop of recent power outages, we have to beg the question: does the electric car still have a future in South Africa?
“Sadly, the future is not bright for electric cars in South Africa,” says Jeff Osborne, head of Gumtree Automotive. “At least not for the time being.”
A battery-reliant electric car can use more power than all your televisions, computers, air conditioning and swimming pool pumps in the home combined. “You may save on petrol, but considering the increase in electricity prices, there really is no cost-benefit as of yet.”
The additional demand placed on the electricity grid is another concern.
INCENTIVES FOR CONSUMERS
Other countries have incentivised users to charge their cars overnight with off-peak rates, when demand is low. However, most of us want our cars to be ready at any moment.
“These cars aren’t typically widely dispersed — you will find clusters of car owners in affluent neighborhoods. If all of them decide to power up before work or on a Friday in preparation for the weekend, you could run into real problems.”
But the challenges are more far-reaching than our erratic power supply, Osborne explains, including the fact that owning an electric car can be impractical for the average South Africa.
“The average electric car is quite expensive to purchase and to run (with purchase prices of between R200 000 and R250 000 per vehicle), and time-consuming to charge. If you are using a normal household plug, it can take eight to 12 hours to fully charge a flat battery, and the range of a charged battery is limited to about 150 to 200 km at best. Hopefully there will a quick recharge station nearby — and even if there is, a quick recharge takes up to half an hour. You will have to plan every trip very carefully.”
Batteries also need to be replaced every four to five years, which can be extremely costly.
FINANCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
In other countries where the uptake of electric cars were more favourable, governments incentivised buyers by covering the bulk of the cost of custom home charge point installation and granting tax write-offs. “South Africa has made no mention of doing this locally, although there has been a push by the Department of Environmental Affairs for public charging stations that will be powered by solar panels. Of course, quick charging draws huge currents, which photo-voltaic panels may not be able to provide,” says Osborne. “It will take a huge capex investment from filling stations to introduce charging stations and the profit motive is low at the moment.”
We should also not assume that electric cars are the most effective means of “greening” our roads. “The car itself does not generate any carbon emissions, but the primary source of electricity in South Africa is coal, which is a significant pollutant. You have to look at the environmental costs for the cars’ entire life cycle, including where the power is going to come from. If the grid is cleaner, the car would be cleaner.”
However, Osborne says it is still worth pursuing research into electric cars.
Practically, if you hope to lower your carbon footprint, consider buying a hybrid vehicle. “Hybrid vehicles entered the South African market about five years ago, and we are seeing quality secondhand cars entering this market.”
Osborne adds that the automotive industry has placed great emphasis on encouraging and developing the production of hybrid vehicles.
Head of Gumtree Automotive “Sadly, the future is not bright for electric cars in South Africa … You may save on petrol, but considering the increase in electricity prices, there really is no cost-benefit as of yet.”